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China: US Should Back Rights Reforms at California Summit

Vocal Support for Rights Aspirations of Chinese People More Urgent than Ever

(New York) – President Obama should make human rights central in his discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the two countries’ June 7-8 summit in California. The summit is a critical moment to underscore that better relations with the US will depend on real action to improve human rights and not just progressive rhetoric.  

Xi, who formally assumed the presidency in March 2013, began his term with grand rhetoric for reform and announced a vision for a revitalized nation at a time of growing public discontent.  He has hinted at possible reforms to widely disliked policies in China, including the arbitrary detention system known as re-education through labor, the abusive one-child policy, and the discriminatory household registration (“hukou”) system. Yet his rhetoric has not yet been matched by corresponding actions. Xi’s efforts to crack down on corruption, for example, involved investigating a few officials and a campaign against displays of ill-gotten wealth such as banquets. 

But at the same time, Xi Jinping’s government has also detained and arrested 15 activists in Beijing and Jiangxi Province for organizing protests which call on the government to implement anti-corruption and asset disclosure measures. The government has also detained, arrested, and prosecuted Tibetans involved in self-immolations rather than address the deeper grievances against the government that underlie such actions.

“Xi Jinping’s rhetoric suggests he and the government is feeling some heat of public pressure for change, yet the central leadership appears to have ruled out any fundamental reforms,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The US government can help reinforce rights-related reform by bolstering the voices of Chinese people on the ground.”

In recent years, people all over China have demanded greater justice and human rights, which in turn forced the government to appear more responsive to popular demands. In 2011, in Wukan, Guangdong Province, villagers staged protests that locked down the village for months until the provincial leadership relented and promised villagers limited democracy and investigations into claims of corruption. In May 2013, in Kunming, Yunnan Province, residents’ demonstrations against plans for a petrochemical plant forced the city’s mayor to address the crowd, a rare public interaction between the authorities and ordinary people.

The Obama administration’s record over China’s human rights has been mixed. The US admitted the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng to its embassy in Beijing, and later the US after he escaped from home imprisonment in May 2012. On some occasions, such as Secretary Clinton’s January 2011 inaugural Holbrooke lecture, the Obama Administration has spoken forcefully about the importance of human rights protections in China. But on many other occasions – particularly those that would have most influence on senior Chinese officials – public diplomacy in support of human rights has been weak. In his first visit to China as Secretary of State, in April 2013, Secretary John Kerry’s public discussion of human rights included only a reference to having raised individual cases. Despite a commitment to a “whole of government” approach to human rights, it remains unclear whether or what specific human rights issues were raised publicly or privately by other senior American officials, such as Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Tom Donilon, or General Martin Dempsey, during their recent visits to China.

“President Obama should reverse course on sending lukewarm signals on basic rights to the Chinese government,” Richardson said. “Many of these issues, such as an independent judiciary, the free flow of information, and the freedom of expression, underpin key diplomatic, economic, and strategic issues in the bilateral relationship.”

During the meeting, Obama can ask Xi Jinping about individual activists, including Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng, and Chen Guangcheng. Liu, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, remains in jail while his wife Liu Xia is under unlawful house arrest in Beijing. Gao Zhisheng, a well-known human rights lawyer, is also in jail after he was repeatedly disappeared and tortured by the authorities. Although Chen left China, his extended family continues to suffer detention and harassment in retaliation for Chen’s activism.

Ahead of the meeting, Obama can and should meet with Chinese human rights activists living in the US and solicit their views on strategies to promote human rights in China. Obama could also give media interviews on human rights, and broadcast these views through the United States’ microblog account in China.

“The yearning for social justice is more acute in China than ever before,” Richardson said. “President Obama can choose to stand in solidarity with ordinary Chinese people and support their struggle. Otherwise his silence could be taken as consent for the Chinese government’s continued repression.” 

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